On Saturday, I went to see the sixth installment of the Wexner Center for the Arts’ “Rare Films from the Baseball Hall of Fame” series. It’s exactly what it sounds like: strange little film clips from Cooperstown’s archives, not like anything you’d ever see in your standard pre-game sepia-fest on MLB Network of the Game of the Week. The Wex’s film/video curator Dave Filipi, himself a huge baseball fan, puts the program together, and it was out of sight.
Why? Mostly because of the weirdness. Baseball history so often comes off all polished and dignified, probably because professional producers have combed through the archives to find the most polished and dignified bits of film. There was no “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” moments here, however. It was all crazy and wonderful, and I consider myself one of the luckiest men in central Ohio for getting to see it. A mere sampling:
Baseball promotional spots: These clips, from the early 60s and filmed for no purpose that anyone can remember, featured big leaguers talking to the camera about how great a sport baseball truly is. The only problem: they come off like videos of hostages telling their families they’re being treated humanely. “Thanks to the contacts I have made in baseball,” says a robotic Senators’ outfielder Chuck Hinton, “I have been able to start my own insurance business in the offseason.” Joe Nuxhall talks about how great an opportunity it was for him to get sent down to the minors as an eleven-year veteran at the age of 34, because now he’s re-focused on helping the big club win in 1963! Finally, Al Kaline ads “in addition to the joy and excitement baseball brings, we ballplayers have a generous pension program.” Now that I think about it, these were probably Marvin Miller’s motivational films or something.
A newsreel film about Ted Williams returning to baseball following World War II: It quickly turned into a “this is why Ted is such a good hitter,” thing, with long shots and explanations of Williams taking batting practice. Best parts: (1) Williams carving and filing his bats in preparation for a game in ways that have to be 18 kinds of illegal today; and (2) Williams using a homemade batting tee made out of a toilet plunger base, varying lengths of broomstick to simulate pitches of varying types, and a rubber garden hose with notches sliced on the end on which the ball can sit. I imagine it was pretty high-tech for 1946.
Some random scenes from the 1959 Hall of Fame inductions: All behind the scenes stuff like Ty Cobb comparing the size of a bat he used to one used by Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker walking around looking kind of lost and Frankie Frisch talking to a bunch of kids. I kept waiting for Frisch to convince the Veterans Committee to induct a couple of the kids just for the hell of it.
“The Name of the Game is Fun”: Shots of various ballpark promotion nights from 1966, including a cow milking contest in Minnesota, a celebrity game in Los Angeles, and pregame twisting and monkeying and frooging and all manner of other fad dancing by a rather pathetic assemblage of teenagers around home plate before a White Sox game. They were followed up by some Nancy Sinatra/These Boots Are Made for Walking lookalikes shakin’ what their mommas gave them at each base in between innings.
A “highlights” reel from the 1955 Washington Senators: Keep in mind this was a team that went 53-101. As such, there was very little on the field stuff. Rather, there was a lot of “this is John Smith, who works in the ticket office at Griffith Stadium.” Best part: an interview with Clark Griffith, who looked to be approximately 125 years-old at the time. Looking him up online after I got home, I now realize that, assuming this film was made after the 1955 season it chronicles, he would die within weeks of its filming. That sobering thought was leavened somewhat by the fact that, during the interview, his wife stood next to him in silence, obviously drunk and clearly full of about 60 or 70 years worth of pent-up marital resentment.
Gillette Razor Commercials of about a million dudes: Gillette was by far baseball’s biggest sponsor back in the day, so pretty much every ballplayer was a Gillette shill at one time or another. And they were pretty entertaining commercials too. Allie Reynolds dressed up like a 19th century ballplayer, complete with handlebar mustache. A narrator making fun of Eddie Lopat for being a junkballer (“hey Eddie, show us your famous nothing pitch!”). Gil Hodges, obviously reading from a cue card, and doing a poor job of it. The razors themselves intrigued me too. Two standard issue blades in a nice looking razor for $1. My Mach3 cartridges cost me approximately $59 for a replacement set of 8 and I can’t use them for anything else. Maybe I’ll check out eBay tonight to see if I can get me one of the old-timey ones.
Scenes from the National League’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration: Filmed in 1951 at the same New York hotel where the NL was formed in 1876, the clips — hosted by Mel Allen — are most notable for the fact that all but one of the six or seven interviewees were lifetime American Leaguers. Oh, and Charlie Gehringer looked at all times like a man who would kill you, gut you, and make clothing out of your skin. Really, you’ve never seen a more terrifying stare in your life. I didn’t sleep at all either Saturday or Sunday night thinking about it.
Clark Griffith’s 85th (and final) birthday: Back to the crypt keeper, this time in his office in Griffith Stadium, where he showed pictures of presidents throwing out the first pitch at Senators’ games. In addition to mistaking Franklin Roosevelt for Teddy, he told a rambling but nonetheless interesting story about how William Howard Taft became president because he was a bad semi-pro baseball player. The capper: Senators’ office staff singing a particularly joyless rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the old guy, led by — and I am not making this up — J. Edgar Hoover, who then helped Griffith cut the cake. Must have been a hell of a party.
And last, but certainly not least was “Baseball vs. Drugs“: Outside of the murderous gaze of Charlie Gehringer, this was by far the most disturbing thing I’ve seen in months. In what I can only assume was intended for distribution in schools, Baltimore Orioles’ reliever Pete Richert is filmed in a grade school classroom, talking about the perils of drug use. What makes it so disturbing is that the children — who are really young; like maybe 7 or 8 — were obviously fed highly-specific questions to ask Richert about drugs, which he answered in wildly inappropriate detail that, in reality, came off more like a how-to seminar. Things like “how do you take marijuana?” to which Richert replied “well, it can be smoked in cigarettes called ‘joints’ or in a pipe or a device called a bong, or sometimes it can be eaten in brownies.” Or “what does smack make you feel like?” (and the kid did actually say “smack”), which was followed by a description of a heroin high from Richert that sounded so blissful and enticing that I felt like putting a spike into my vein right then and there. The best part: Richert was accompanied by some Colts’ football player whose name I forget, who when asked “what happens if you mix booze and ludes,” said “it can really mess you up. In fact I once knew a guy who did that, and he died . . . I just had to leave him there in the alley.” I wish that clip had gone on longer, because it was the sort of answer that really just led to more questions.
Of course unintentional comedy didn’t make up the whole program. There was some nice newsreel footage from the 1954 World Series — amazingly, there was more to those four games than a single catch. There was also a pretty neat tour of AL stadiums from 1934 during which Fenway Park was referred to as both “new” due to a recent renovation and “symmetrical,” which tells you just how screwed up those old parks really were.
According to Dave Filipi, the folks at the Hall of Fame are telling him that they are scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of the kinds of film they can send him, so this sixth installment may very well be the last. Apparently they’ve been telling him that for a couple of years, however, so one never knows. At the very least he’s planning on putting together a mega clip-show of all of the highlights from the six installments, which should be the best thing to hit Columbus since Hiedki Irabu’s last rehab assignment.
UPDATE: The aforementioned Dave Filipi made an appearance in the comments to deliver some fabulous news: last year’s “Rare Films” program (not the one described here, but similar) will be presented at the Cleveland Museum of Art on May 27th. This year’s program — complete with “Baseball vs. Drugs” and the rest — will be at the Block Museum at Northwestern University in Evanston, likely around June 11 or so. Keep an eye on their website for details.
Thanks a lot to Dave, who, with a little help from his friends, is the one who edited down the raw footage provided by Cooperstown into the supremely entertaining program described above.